Fes­tive clas­sic

‘The Snow­man’ was pub­lished 40 years ago this Christ­mas. Suzanne Har­ring­ton charts its rise from un­known book to fes­tive clas­sic

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - News -

Four decades of The Snow­man

“I re­mem­ber that win­ter be­cause it had brought the heav­i­est snow I had ever seen. Snow had fallen steadily all night long and in the morn­ing I woke in a room filled with light and si­lence, the whole world seemed to be held in a dream-like still­ness. It was a mag­i­cal day... and it was on that day I made The Snow­man.”

This is Ray­mond Briggs, the Sus­sex cre­ator and il­lus­tra­tor, talk­ing about his chil­dren’s clas­sic

The Snow­man. It was pub­lished 40 years ago this Christ­mas, first ap­pear­ing on De­cem­ber 26, 1978, the word­less mag­i­cal tale of a boy and the snow­man he made com­ing to life, then fly­ing through the night sky over the Sus­sex South Downs to Brighton Pier. It is a short, sim­ple story, beau­ti­fully il­lus­trated. Ini­tially, it was not a big deal in the pub­lish­ing world — the first print run sold well, but the se­cond didn’t. The pub­lish­ers, Hamish Hamil­ton, were left with 50,000 copies in their base­ment.

This changed dra­mat­i­cally in 1982, when The

Snow­man was made into a 26minute an­i­mated film by John Coates, its £2 mil­lion pro­duc­tion funded by tele­vi­sion’s fledg­ling Chan­nel 4. The film added Christ­mas into the story, Chan­nel Four aired it, and it was nom­i­nated for an Os­car the fol­low­ing year, and won a BAFTA. Chan­nel 4 has fea­tured it ev­ery sin­gle Christ­mas since. It has be­come as much a part of Christ­mas as choco­late coins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Un­like the name­less boy in the book, the boy in the film is called James — it was the name of the boyfriend of the sto­ry­board artist who drew the North Pole scene; she put ‘James’ on the gift tag of the present from Santa Claus. Also added was Howard Blake’s mu­si­cal score, all in­stru­men­tal apart from Walk­ing In The Air (now a Christ­mas ear­worm — al­beit con­sid­er­ably less jar­ring than, say, Slade or Jona Lewie); orig­i­nally it was per­formed by choir­boy Peter Auty. Aled Jones came later, in a 1985 ad­vert for Toys R Us, be­cause by then Auty’s voice had bro­ken, which is why we for­ever as­so­ciate Jones with the song, and not its orig­i­nal per­former, who was not cred­ited.

The film goes be­yond the Sus­sex vil­lage and flies past Brighton, all the way to Nor­way, where the boy and the snow­man see the North­ern Lights, be­fore drop­ping in on Santa Claus at the North Pole. The boy is given a snow­man scarf as a present, then they fly back to the boy’s home, where he goes back to bed and the snow­man re­turns to his place in the gar­den. In the morn­ing when the boy awak­ens, the snow­man has melted. It is not a Hol­ly­wood end­ing.

The idea, says Ray­mond Briggs, was never about Christ­mas, the in­clu­sion of which he de­scribed as “corny and twee”, although he con­ceded that it “worked very well”. No, the idea of the Snow­man was about loss, and the fleet­ing na­ture of all things.

“The idea was clean, nice and silent. I don’t have happy end­ings,” Briggs said in a BBC in­ter­view. “I cre­ate what seems nat­u­ral and in­evitable. The snow­man melts, my par­ents died, an­i­mals die, flow­ers die. Ev­ery­thing does. There’s noth­ing par­tic­u­larly gloomy about it. It’s a fact of life.” Briggs, born in 1934 to Ethel and Ernest Briggs and an art stu­dent at Wim­ble­don and the Slade, re­mains glo­ri­ously grumpy. It was his own house in a Sus­sex vil­lage which fea­tures in The Snow­man; he was not, how­ever, keen to cash in on its huge suc­cess, which is why its se­quel, The Snow­man and The

Snow­dog, did not ap­pear un­til 2012, when it pre­miered on Chan­nel 4 to an au­di­ence of 10 mil­lion peo­ple.

De­spite the stel­lar suc­cess of his cre­ation, he re­mained de­ter­minedly grounded, still liv­ing in ru­ral Sus­sex, es­chew­ing the po­ten­tial glitz of ma­te­rial suc­cess. (He once at­tended Roald Dahl’s birth­day party only be­cause he knew Dahl to be as cur­mud­geonly as him­self.) In­stead, he went to make the far more fright­en­ing, poignant When The Wind Blows in 1982, fol­low­ing on from 1977’s Fun­gus the Bo­gey­man, and two fur­ther books, 1984’s The Tin-Pot For­eign Gen­eral and the Old Iron Woman, and Ethel & Ernest in 1998.

Be­fore CGI and dig­i­tal an­i­ma­tion, the film of The

Snow­man con­sisted of 200,000 in­di­vid­ual draw­ings. One of the orig­i­nal artists who worked on it is Philom­ena Win­stan­ley, now 70 and liv­ing in Bo­livia.

“Back then we used ren­der­ing to make im­ages jump and it was very time-con­sum­ing,” she says. “The date for the cam­era was al­ways be­fore peo­ple had time to fin­ish, so we were al­ways work­ing un­til four in the morn­ing. It was a lot of fun, I en­joyed it. They were nice peo­ple.” David Bowie thought so too. At the time the film was be­ing made, the score’s com­poser, Howard Blake, was also work­ing on the erotic vam­pire movie

The Hunger, in which Bowie starred. This is how he ended up do­ing the in­tro­duc­tion for the film, at the peak of his Let’s Dance global su­per­star­dom; Bowie loved Briggs’ work, and gladly made the 90-se­cond in­tro­duc­tion, ap­par­ently for his son Dun­can.

Since the film’s early suc­cess and pop­u­lar­ity, The Snow­man has grown — snow­balled, if you will — into a gi­ant white in­dus­try which sim­ply re­fuses to melt. The book, which has sold over 5.5 mil­lion copies, has been trans­lated into 15 lan­guages (de­spite not hav­ing any words) and there have been theatre pro­duc­tions, bal­lets, and or­ches­tral per­for­mances of the score. For its 40th an­niver­sary, the Royal Mint has is­sued a spe­cial 50p com­mem­o­ra­tive coin, and in Oc­to­ber

War Horse author Michael Mor­purgo pub­lished a nov­el­i­sa­tion of the story. Wa­ter­stones book­shops are us­ing it as one of their main Christ­mas themes, and the mu­seum in Brighton — which the boy and the snow­man flew over in the book — will fea­ture an ex­hi­bi­tion of the orig­i­nal art­work over the Christ­mas hol­i­days.

And it will of course be shown on Chan­nel 4, as it has been ev­ery Christ­mas for the past 40 years. It may have been a story about im­per­ma­nence, but it is now firmly em­bed­ded in our con­scious­ness. Prob­a­bly be­cause it’s so ut­terly beau­ti­ful. It melts us all.

“The pub­lish­ers were left with 50,000 copies in their base­ment

The Snow­man, be­low, was writ­ten by Ray­mond Briggs, be­low right, four decades ago. The Snow­man and the Snow­dog, main im­age, was the author’s long-awaited fol­low up.

Michael Mor­purgo has writ­ten a nov­el­i­sa­tion of the book.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.